Creativity Forges Connection: How Covenant House Staff Engage with Youth


In the Great Hall on a recent morning, youth joyfully tossed plastic balls into tiny paper cup baskets. In this game of “Ping Pong Basketball Trivia,” each cup had a label for a category they would have to answer a question about: Life Skills. Legal. Housing. Education. Pop Culture.

“I came up with questions that are related to resources in the community so that when youth leave Covenant House, they know where they can find them,” says Youth in Transition Worker Barbara Airst, who was doing intentional engagement with youth currently living in the shelter to explain the support YIT workers provide once they move into the community.

The trivia questions led to meaningful conversation, Barbara said. Suddenly, this fun activity opened a door for youth to learn more about how to move forward from Covenant House into the community.

Our teams of youth workers are skilled at identifying these conversation starters with young people to help them learn new life skills, gain valuable information they can store for future use or to simply build trust and connection with staff and one another. The goal is to make youth feel empowered to take that next step towards their bright future, to help them move beyond that moment of their life in which they experienced homelessness, to a brighter path ahead.

For Youth in Transition Worker Mike Lewis, who primarily works with young people in the community, creativity comes from first asking youth about their interests. He recalls meeting one young woman who was skeptical of working with him. He asked what she was listening to in her earbuds. “Oh, you wouldn’t know it,” she said. “Try me,” he said. When she showed him he replied, “that’s John Coltrane and Duke Ellington,” he told her to her amazement. They ended up attending jazz festival concerts together, that common ground providing a key opportunity to connect so he could help.

Youth are often quite guarded, Mike said, with most having experienced some form of trauma. These methods of creativity are often an invitation to help build trust.

“It’s about meeting the youth where they’re at,” he said. Adds Youth in Transition Program Supervisor Dionne Scott, “Often, intentional relentless engagement is called for, and this is where the creativity comes in.”

This could look like meeting youth at coffee shops, malls, doing Whatsapp exercise videos, craft workshops or the museum, where Mike once took a young father and his son. Not only did the youth get to visit the Royal Ontario Museum for the first time, it provided a chance for him to ask Mike about how to navigate fatherhood.

These connections, as intentional as they may be, are often very casual. For example, late one evening over the May long weekend, the Covenant House youth kitchen next to the Rights of Passage lounge was the place to be – alive with activity as youth huddled around making ice cream mochi, a sweet treat native to Japan. Youth donned gloves and got into the action with overnight Youth Worker, April. They mixed ingredients and shaped their mochi into spherical shapes. Of course, they got to enjoy the fruits of their labour.

While this may have been just a fun way to pass the time on a Sunday night, the activity – a part of Rights of Passage programming, which is designed to equip youth with the tools they need to move on to independent living – led to important discussions about life skills. These are foundational to our work to help equip youth with the tools they need to build a confident, independent future for themselves. At the end of the mochi activity, staff found themselves surrounded by youth who wanted to know more about housing – they talked about those options late into the night.

A young person who didn’t want to make mochi told Youth Worker Marva Townsend-Joao he’d like to try making another dish instead. So, the next night, at his request, she taught him to make lasagna. She also invited another young person to join them in making the dish. Her hope was that both would get to know each other and foster a sense of community by working together.

As they made the dish, Marva talked with them about the value of budgeting, of being creative with ingredients. This left both youth feeling confident and self-assured that they have the skills to make sound decisions for themselves. This also allowed the youth to feel comfortable and connected to one another and to staff – for example, one of these youth was able to follow up later and have a conversation with Marva about his past.

“The way in which youth are going to survive and thrive is by learning to understand each other, which gives them a broader sense of what their community is going to look like and feel like once they move forward,” Marva says. “Pairing youth together to teach them to make something like breakfast smoothies not only helps them learn a skill but also connects them to their peers. They’re building partnership with each other. Food and these activities are an amazing way to do that.”